Siri Is a Gimmick and a Tease. Google Voice Search Is a Whole Lot Better.

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Nov. 15 2012 4:00 AM

Siri Is a Gimmick and a Tease

But Google Voice Search is getting close to fulfilling Apple’s broken promise.

Apple's Siri.
Apple's Siri.

Courtesy Apple.

Siri is a little over a year old, and by now her failings are well known. Like Crystal Pepsi and Rick Perry’s presidential run, Apple’s digital assistant was delivered to us on a magic carpet of hype, promising to change everything about everything. “For decades technologists have teased us with this dream that you’ll be able to talk to technology and it’ll do things for us,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s chief marketer, declared as he unveiled Siri to the world last October. Now, he suggested, that dream had come true. Siri would finally let you talk to computers the way you talk to people—naturally, without needing to memorize commands or syntax—and then she would help you the way a real assistant might.

Siri let us down immediately. Her problems are manifold, but they all add up to something that would doom any assistant: She is profoundly unreliable. Yes, sometimes, depending on how you speak and what you ask, Siri will get exactly what you’re saying and deliver the correct answer. Those moments are delightful. They’re also rare.

A lot of times, Siri won’t have a clue what you’re asking, and when that happens the conversation is apt to go off in wild directions. “What was the Notre Dame score?” my colleague’s 6-year-old son recently asked Siri. She heard, “Where is a porn store?” and then, quite helpfully, recommended the Pure Romance Warehouse.

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Even when Siri does understand, she doesn’t understand. Here’s a conversation I just had with her.  

“When is Skyfall playing?”

Siri responds with a list of movie times. Not bad.

“When is Lincoln playing?” I ask.

“Here’s Skyfall playing quite far from Lincoln Village today,” she responds, showing me a list of screenings near Lincoln Village, a town I’ve never heard of.

I try again, this time shouting the word Lincoln as if he’d emancipated me personally: “When is Lincoln playing?!”

Something about my attitude sends Siri over the edge, and she responds with the digital equivalent of frothing at the mouth:

Apple's Siri in use on an iPhone.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen every time, but it happens just enough to render Siri unusable. When you take into account her less-than-stellar hit rate, Siri is an assistant only Zooey Deschanel could love. If you’re so meteorologically challenged that, upon hearing the unmistakable crack of a storm while staring out a rain-soaked window, you still need to coquettishly inquire, “Is that rain?” then Siri is totally for you. For normal people, Siri hovers between a gimmick and tease.

But as I said, all this has been chronicled before. (See Mat Honan’s definitive piece, “Siri is Apple’s Broken Promise.”) What’s new, now, is that Siri finally has serious competition on the iPhone. Last month Google added a voice search feature to its iOS app. (The feature has been available on Android for years.) After seeing it trounce Siri in head-to-head competitions, I decided to give Google’s app a try for myself.

The bad news is I didn’t find it magical—while Google’s voice feature understood my queries more often than Siri did, it still made several mistakes, and it often failed to give me useful answers. There were even a few times when Google failed while Siri excelled. The first time I asked Google, “When is Skyfall playing?” it thought I’d said, “When is sky fall plane?” I repeated the question and it did the same thing again. A few hours later, I came back and asked the Skyfall question once more. This time, mysteriously, it nailed it.

But if Google’s voice search isn’t perfect, it is truly useful. Most of the time it understood what I was asking and gave me a good-enough answer to my question. In that way, it’s groundbreaking. Google Voice Search isn’t just better than Siri or any other voice recognition system I’ve used. It also approached a threshold that transformed it from a novelty act into something I could imagine relying on in my daily life. With Voice Search, Google is beginning to make good on Apple’s broken promise.

Google achieves this in a few ways. First, it lowers the bar for success. Google’s voice feature is called Voice Search because, unlike Siri, it doesn’t promise to become your robo-secretary. Google Voice Search will not make appointments for you. What it will do is answer questions about the world—when you need anything that you might otherwise find with Google’s Web search, you can use Google Voice Search if you so choose. These limitations aren’t exactly by design; on the iPhone, Apple’s restrictions in third-party apps make it technically difficult for Google to do everything Siri does. But they work out in Google’s favor: This app meets and sometimes exceeds your limited expectations.

Second, Google’s user interface is superior. It’s screamingly fast—Google begins decoding my question as I’m speaking it, so it’s ready to present me with an answer just a split second after I’m done. By contrast, Siri takes one or two agonizing seconds to understand my question and to find an answer. More surprising is that Siri, which is made by a company that has a reputation for caring about superficial things, doesn’t sound very good. Her every utterance is tinged by a robotic, low-def twang. Google’s voice sounds like a real person. (Google doesn’t give her a name, but I picture the voice belonging to a young woman, smart as heck, with short brown hair, nerd-chic glasses, and no patience for Zooey Deschanel.)

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